Towards a History of Sound-Symbolic Theories

February 20, 2014 - February 21, 2014
University of Burgundy (FR)

MSH "Maison des sciences humaines"
2, bd Gabriel
Dijon 21000

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  • Burgundy Regional Council
  • Universtity of Burgundy


Stefano Gensini
University of Rome
John Joseph
University of Edinburgh
Thomas Kasulis
Ohio State University
Patrizia Laspia
University of Palermo
Raffaele Torella
University of Rome


Luca Nobile
University of Burgundy (FR)

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A significant part of the recent research in cognitive neuroscience nowadays seems to support the assumption of an originally motivated relationship between phonetics and semantics (Rizzolatti and Arbib 1998, Ramachandran and Hubbard 2001, Gentilucci et al. 2001, Maurer et al. 2006, Rizzolatti and Craighero 2007, Imai et al. 2008, Ozturk et al. 2012). Given the distrust of most modern linguists on this topic and the scarcity of books of linguistics on it (exceptions are Hinton et al. 1994, Hamano 1998, Voeltz and Kilian-Hatz 2001, Bohas and Dat 2007), these scientists have sometimes been forced to mobilize authors of a bygone era to articulate a discourse around the experimental data they have. So Rizzolatti and Craighero cite repeatedly Condillac (1715-1780), while Ramachandran and Hubbard use, without quoting, a famous argument of Nigidius Figulus (98-45 BC.). If, on the one hand, this indicates a weakness of the current research in linguistics facing the challenge of natural sciences, it suggests, on the other hand, that the history of theories on language, through the epistemological hindsight it allows, could provide a valuable ground of mediation to initiate a fruitful exchange between these two disciplinary fields.

The history of theories attributing an important role to relationships of similarity or analogy between sound and meaning in language is indeed rich and ancient. In most major written traditions (Western, Jewish, Arab, Indian, Japanese...), these speculations, often related to issues of the origin or creation of mankind and the world, emerge in the early stages of metalinguistic reflection (the Upanishads in India, Plato in Greece, Kuukai in Japan, etc.) and often resurface during major turning points in the history of civilizations (Nigidius Figulus at the end of Roman Republic, John Wallis and Charles de Brosses shortly before the English and French Revolutions, etc.). The formulations of these theories are extremely varied, not only from the point of view of textual genres (scientific, philosophical, literary or religious texts) and from that of their cultural and political functions (mystical or materialistic, revolutionary or reactionary, marginal or institutional theories, etc.), but also in terms of technical, methodological and epistemological solutions (constative theories of the imitation of reality and performative theories of its establishment; iconic theories of the similarity between sound and meaning and indexical theories of the contiguity between voice and world; sound-image, sound-diagram and sound-metaphor theories; onomatopoeic, sound-symbolic or phono-semantic theories, based on the hearing or the articulatory gesture, etc.). Most often forgotten or ignored, these hypotheses are, in addition, a huge heritage of ideas, problems and sometimes solutions about the relationship between language and mind, at times strangely naive, at times surprisingly refined, but always deeply stimulating through their radical difference from the contemporary epistemological framework. It is a heritage that requires the work of linguists, historians, philosophers, anthropologists, and epistemologists to be released from its now cryptic encoding and to be relocated in its own cultural coordinates allowing to understand and exploit it.

Theories of this type are found for example (at very different levels of development) in the Chandogya Upanishad (II, 22), and in Plato (Cratylus 422e-427d), Epicurus (Letter to Herodotus 75-76), Nigidius Figulus (in Gellius, X, 4), Dionysius of Halicarnassus (De compositione verborum, XVI, 4), Origen (Contra Celsum, I, 24), Iamblichus (De mysteriis Aegyptiorum, VII, 5), Augustine (De Dialectica, VI and VII), in the Sefer Yetzirah, and in Kuukai (Shoji Jisso Gi), Abhinavagupta (Paratrisikavivarana and Tantraloka c. III), Ibn Jinni, Abraham Abulafia, Henry of Ghent (Summa quaestionum ordinariarum, c. LXXIII), Jacob Boehme (Mysterium magnum), John Wallis (1653: ch. XIV), Leibniz (1710 and 1765: ch. III, 2), Giambattista Vico (1744: ch. I, 3, 57 and II, 2, 4), Charles de Brosses (1765: ch. I and VI), Condillac (1775: ch. I, 2), Court de Gébelin (1774-1783 and 1776), Melchiorre Cesarotti (1785), Dieudonné Thiébault (1802), Carlo Denina (1804), Charles Nodier (1808 and 1834: ch. I-III), Abel-François Villemain (1835), Wilhelm von Humboldt (1836: ch. 10), Ernest Renan (1848), Honoré Chavée (1849), Karl Wilhelm Heyse (1856), Adolphe Pictet (1859), Hensleigh Wedgwood (1866), Edward Tylor (1871), Jean Pierre Brisset (1883, 1900, 1913), Georg van der Gabelentz (1891), Wilhelm Wundt (1900: ch. I, 1), Maurice Grammont (1901 and 1933: ch. III), Otto von Jespersen (1922: ch. XX-XXI), Edward Sapir (1929), Wolfgang Köhler (1929), Richard Paget (1930), Stanley Newman (1933), Dwight Bolinger (1949), Maxime Chastaing (1958, 1962, 1964, 1966), Jean-Michel Peterfalvi (1964, 1966, 1970), Roman Jakobson (1965), Pierre Guiraud (1967: ch. III), Ivan Fónagy (1983 and 2001), Stanislav Voronin (1983), and probably many others that we do not yet know.

The critical literature on the subject is now abundant. Just recalling some basic benchmarks, a starting point can perhaps be found in the Sixties with, on the one hand, André Padoux' key PhD dissertation, Recherches sur la symbolique et l'énergie de la parole dans certains textes tantriques (1963; en. tr. Vāc: the concept of the word in selected hindu tantras, 1990) and, on the other hand, Peterfalvi's review of the experimental researches on sound symbolism (1965). In the Semitic field, a turning point is represented by Gershom Scholem's Der Name Gottes und die Sprachtheorie der Kabbala (1970) tracing the first scientifically accurate profile of the Kabbalist theory of language in the Middle Ages. Despite his sarcastic approach, Gérard Genette's Mimologics (1976) represents another milestone as the first attempt to provide an overview of the Western tradition. For the modern era, one can supplement it with Roman Jakobson's and Linda Waugh's The Sound Shape of Language (1979: ch. 4) and with Philippe Monneret's Le sens du signifiant (2003: ch. 1-2). In the 1980s, researches on the subject are growing. One can cite at least Thomas Kasulis' work on Kuukai (1982), Jürgen Trabant's ones on Humboldt (1985, 1990, 1992), Moshe Idel's on Abulafia and the Kabbalah (1987, 1988, 1989), Donatella Di Cesare's on Humboldt and Hamann (1989, 1998, 2001), Stefano Gensini's on Leibniz (1991, 1995), Irene Rosier-Catach's on Henry of Ghent (1995), John Joseph's (2000) and David Sedley's (2003) on the Cratylus, Raffaele Torella on Abhinavagupta (2004), and Luca Nobile's on de Brosses and Condillac (2007, 2011, 2012). The time may have come to attempt a new synthesis. It is significant, from this point of view, that Keith Allan, editor of the Oxford Handbook of the History of Linguistics (2013) just asked Margareth Magnus for a chapter on the history of sound symbolism.

This conference aims to gather papers on the sound-symbolic theories of the past. Several types of approaches and questioning are possible. What kind of relationship does the theory exactly establish between sound and meaning of language? Which kind of forms, elements or phenomena are involved? Is it possible to explain the assumed sound-symbolic values through an analysis of phono-articulatory or graphico-visual properties? What are the criteria for assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the theory? What is its function in the author's thought? What is its role in the contemporary cultural context? What are the descriptive, methodological, epistemological, metaphysical implications?


The conference languages are English and French.

Presentation time will be 20 minutes (+ 10 minutes of discussion).

Proposals will consist of a 500 word abstract with a brief bibliography.

They should be sent by email to Luca Nobile: [email protected]

The deadline for submission of proposals is 30th October 2013.

Acceptance will be announced on 30th November 2013.

The conference will be held on 20th-21st February 2014 at the University of Burgundy, Dijon.

Selected papers will be submitted to the publisher John Benjamins, Amsterdam.

Articles submitted for publication must be written in English.

Organizer and scientific coordinator: Luca Nobile (University of Burgundy)

Organizing Committee: Philippe Monneret (University of Burgundy), Odile Leclercq (University of Aix-Marseille), Thomas Verjans (University of Burgundy), Jean-Baptiste Goussard (University of Burgundy), Sergueï Tchougounnikov (University of Burgundy), Pilar Mompeán Guillamón (University of Castilla la Mancha), Ekaterina Voronova (University of Burgundy), Mariangela Albano (University of Burgundy), Samuel Bidaud (University of Burgundy).

Scientific Committee: Philippe Monneret (University of Burgundy), Samir Bajric (University of Burgundy), Odile Leclercq (University of Aix-Marseille), Sylvain Auroux (CNRS), Émilie Aussant (CNRS), Bernard Colombat (University of Paris 7), Marc Baratin (University of Lille 3), Alessandro Garcea (University of Lyon 2), Olga Fischer (University of Amsterdam), Edoardo Lombardi Vallauri (University of Rome 3), Tetyana Kozlova (University of Zaporizhzhya), Shoko Hamano (University of Washington), Kazuko Shinohara (University of Tokyo), Kimi Akita (University of Osaka).

The conference is funded by the Regional Council of Burgundy and the EA 4178 CPTC "Centre Pluridisciplinaire Textes et Cultures" at the University of Burgundy.

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Custom tags:

#Linguistics, #History of the Language Sciences, #Iconicity, #Naturalism, #Sound-Symbolism, #Voice